Myanmar: Ceasefire on the Rocks: A Set back to Suu Kyi?
The recent attack by the MNDAA on the Army Posts at Laukkai, the headquarters of the Kokang region on 6th March, 2017 was followed by quick and heavy retaliatory attacks by the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army) on the 10th. This is yet another indication of serious fault lines that exist among the government, the Army and the ethnic militant groups in taking forward the peace process that started with the Nationwide cease fire Agreement of October 2015 and the 21st century Panglong Conference of August 31, 2016.
The peace process in Myanmar can be likened to that of a four-wheel coach where the four wheels represent the ethnic groups along with the militant outfits, the Tatmadaw, the Government of Myanmar led by Suu Kyi and finally – the fourth wheel- China itself. Unless the wheels move together, no progress can be made and the coach can only hobble. This appears to be the state of peace process today.
Of the four actors in the cease fire drama, only Suu Kyi appears to be serious and sincere in reaching out to the ethnic groups while others while mouthing high rhetoric appear to be. moving in different directions. What is missing now is the “Panglong Spirit” displayed by late Gen. Aung San in trying to reach out to the ethnic minorities. It is no surprise that the spirit is in shambles with serious fighting going on in the northwest border of Myanmar.
The 21st Century Panglong Conference started with high hopes on 31st August 2016 with the participation of the stake holders of the government, Parliament, the Burmese Army, 17 ethnic armed organizations, foreign diplomats and the United Nations General secretary. Important participants included the State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the commander in chief Gen. Min Aung Liang and key ethnic leaders from KNU and KIO.
Meeting after decades of ethnic conflict and with the Nationwide Ceasefire agreement signed by 8 of not so relevant militant outfits out of 17, it was not expected that the conference would be a resounding success if seen from the ambitious objective of reconciliation and political dialogue. Yet the fact that they met and all of them gave out their stand in a spirit of bonhmie was itself seen as a major breakthrough.
In an effort to reach out to the ethnics, Suu Kyi boldly talked about federalism, a term avoided by many others. There was no debate or discussion except for statements from various stake holders.
Within three months of the Conference-on 20th November, 2016 precisely, a combined force of Northern Alliance consisting of the KIA (Kachin Independence Army), TNLA (Ta’ang National Liberation Army), MNDAA (Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army) and Arakan Army (AA) attacked the army posts in and around the town Muse.
Muse is quite close to the Chinese border and is the main trading route on the highway from Yunnan to Mandalay. Other places attacked in this “limited war” were in Theini, Kutkkai, Namptkham and Nampttu, all in the northern Shan state. In the fighting that ensued, quite a few artillery shells landed on the Chinese side. Over 5000 persons were displaced of whom about 3600 were said to have fled across the border to China.
The Northern Alliance took care to call the offensive as a “limited war” as they were never in a position to take on the Burmese Army. Yet it is not clear why they chose to start the offensive on the Chinese border and that too in a very busy trade centre like Muse that would certainly disrupt border trade and have a negative impact on China’s economic interests.
It is said that the KIA had been under pressure from the Burmese Army for nearly three months before the present offensive and this offensive perhaps was more in retaliation. The KIA along with three others of the northern alliance were not signatory to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. It is significant to note that the trouble started soon after the 21st Century Panglong Conference.
In the counter offensive, the Burmese army used heavy artillery and air strikes. By December 19, the Army over ran an important KIA post at Gidon, a place not far from the KIA headquarters at Laiza near the Chinese border. By Jan 8, the Burmese Army also over ran another important KIA post at Lai Hpwang as also other minor posts nearby, thereby threatening to cut through the Kachin territory probably isolating the 3rd and 4th Brigade of KIA from the rest.
It was clear from the offensive of the Burmese Army that the KIA was no match to them in semi conventional battles where the former used heavy mortars, howitzers and air strikes to take the posts. The KIA hqrs at Laiza was threatened and could have been easily captured, but for some inexplicable reason, the offensive against the KIA was abruptly stopped. The only reason could be that it would have provoked China as Laiza was uncomfortably close to the Chinese border.
The Chinese response to the offensive was also curious. The embassy at Yangon soon called for a cease fire urging all parties to exercise “restraint.” Five days later, a meeting with Burmese counterparts, a senior Chinese military official declared that “China will not let anyone destroy the peace and stability in the border region.” On Jan 19, the Northern Alliance leaders visited Kunming at the initiative of Sun Gaoxing, Special envoy of Asian Affairs where the offensive in the Muse region must have been discussed. It was also learnt that the leaders wanted the Chinese government and the UWSA (United Wa State Army) to act as witnesses on any peace talks that would ensue.
The demand for the inclusion of UWSA by the Northern Alliance leaders in the peace talks should not come as surprise either as they depend on them for arms and ammunition. To a direct question by press to the Arakan Army Chief Brig. Gen. Tun Muyat Naing whether the AA is being supplied with weapons by UWSA, the chief admitted that “it was natural to help each other more or less.” The UWSA that is headquartered in Pangshang and closely controlled by China has floated an alternate three stage proposal to the one proposed by the government in the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. Does it have the Chinese approval? It is not clear.
The UNFC (United Nationalities Federal Council) of which the three of the four of the Northern Alliance (Arakan Army is not a member) are members had put forth a demand that they will not sign the Nation wide Cease fire agreement unless the government concedes the nine point put forth by the Council. The demand includes political dialogue, constitutional amendments and conceding a federal democratic union before the cease fire which no government would agree.
The official Chinese position over the ethnic conflict as declared by them are:
- China does not act as a Judge.
- All parties to participate in the peace process.
- All parties to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement
- China will not force anyone to sign the agreement
- China had signed the Cease fire agreement as a witness in 2015.
As recently as 6th of March, the MNDAA (Kokang army consisting mostly of ethnic Chinese) attacked some hotels, casinos, police and Army posts at Laukkai, the Headquarters of Kokang at Laukkai. The attacks came as a surprise after all the initiatives taken by the Chinese representative Sun Guoxiang. The response of the Burmese army was swift and more than 20,000 are said to have fled to the border camps in China. A few non Kokang ethnics numbering over 2000 had also fled to Mandalay. The attack of the MNDAA was not by any rogue elements within the MNDAA, but was a well planned and executed operation by their leaders. It is difficult to assume that the Chinese were taken by surprise!
We started with the Kokang incident. This recent incident more than any other, reflects the predicament of all the stake holders in the cease fire diplomacy. Clearly, the Kokang incidents were a set back to the peace process. What is brought out is that Suu Kyi by herself cannot bring forth ethnic reconciliation unless everyone takes ownership of the peace process. All the four actors in the drama- the government led by Suu Kyi, the Tatmadaw, the ethnic militant units and China will all have to be “really” on the same page to take the peace process forward. No quick results can therefore be expected.